Is the Friends Reunited website really about finding old mates - or is it more of a sad CV swap shop?
Dotcom companies may be collapsing quicker than Jonathan King’s career, but there’s one cyber venture that’s on the up and up – Friends Reunited.
Launched by married couple Julie and Steve Pankhurst in late 2000, Friends Reunited is the website that lets you find out what your old schoolmates are up to these days. For a fiver you can email old pals through the site, or you can just bombard the message boards with scurrilous gossip about school discos, dreaded lessons and hated teachers.
Well, you could – until the National Union of Teachers complained that teachers were being defamed, prompting Friends Reunited to close the message boards down. Still, the site has a remarkable three million users, with a spin-off TV programme in the pipeline.
As with the School Disco club night in London and those ‘I Love the 1980s Bubble Perms’ TV programmes, Friends Reunited appears as another groaning example of twenty- and thirtysomethings getting all nostalgic for their not-so-distant pasts. But the infantilism of Friends Reunited is in a class of its own. For a start, these people aren’t really friends at all, in the true meaning of that word. At best they are acquaintances, people we happened to share an experience with 20 or however many years ago.
The site has that kind of thumb-sucking etiquette you find at primary schools, where simply sharing a classroom with somebody in 1979 makes them your ‘fwiend’. Even by secondary school standards, friendship means a lot more than being on the same register as somebody. It’s about a mutual liking, an understanding of give and take, a closeness that involves more than just borrowing and sharing biros.
As I have discovered for myself, there are some individuals on Friends Reunited who might have been ‘proper’ friends when you were at school – but the fact that you have lost contact in the interceding years really means you’ve become different people, lost interest and grown apart.
When I registered on Friends Reunited a month ago (for research purposes, of course), I got an email from a college pal of 10 years ago. After some backslapping exchanges on our current social status and social habits, things went a bit awry: he was still as hostile to my belief in libertarian politics as I was to his old-left radicalism. And judging by the growing time lapses already creeping into our correspondences, our motivation for keeping in contact is as non-committal today as it was, well, 10 years ago.
Friends Reunited plays up the more joyous reunion stories (1), but the majority of participants seem content just to advertise their biographies. And that is the real driving force behind the site: it’s a chance to show how far you’ve come and how much you’ve changed. In many of the glowing self-appraisals, there is a not-so-subtle subtext: ‘You may have thought I was the acne-scared retard with all the sex appeal of a plateful of maggots, but I’m now a successful lawyer with a beautiful wife and three beautiful children.’
We all reminisce at times. Comparing the past with the present allows us to assess our development and to learn from our mistakes. Where this kind of contemplation was once done in private, Friends Reunited allows us to play it out for the benefit of others. But is avenging such traumatic experiences as having an unflattering nickname, being towel-whipped in the showers or having rubbish teachers really worthy of a mature adult who has supposedly left his past behind and moved on to better things?
The success of Friends Reunited will no doubt continue, and we’ll have more Saturday night TV programmes like ‘Space Hoppers Remembered’ and ‘Whatever Happened To Stretched Jeans?’. Especially when they offer that most authentic childhood experience – having ‘friends’ without having to make the effort.
But for a more honest and sincere appraisal of schoolyard days and why they’re best forgotten, spoof website Bullies Reunited is just the job (2). You won’t meet many friends there, I can tell you.
Dancing your worries away?, by Brendan O’Neill
Why I don’t Love the 1980s, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) ‘Honestly, you haven’t changed a bit’, Observer, 2 December 2001
(2) See the Bullies Reunited website
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